Commonly Held Misconceptions about Rules of Order:

Commonly Held Misconceptions about Rules of Order:

How Best Can We Set People Straight?


Presented to Chapter 51, Parliamentary Society of Toronto, November 5, 2002

by Yvonne Greig


Each of six (6) common misconceptions are described, followed by references, and some suggestions on how to tactfully "set people straight".


1. Many people think that Robert is the sole source of Rules of Order and/or that what is observed in one setting generalizes to others e.g. parliament, municipalities etc. People learn by observation, complaining that Robert is heavy going.


At meetings: asking questions such as what parliamentary authority is in use, having Robert handy to quote, questioning what seems to be incorrect usage. Many people consider themselves knowledgeable, tact is needed.


2.  "Breaking the Tie” R10 p.392

This misconception can lead to bylaws obliging (by the use of the word "shall" instead of "may") the chair to vote to break the tie. A tie vote (equal number of votes for and against) in ordinary societies, but not the British House of Parliament, means that less than a majority of voters want to adopt the motion, therefore it is lost.  It is important to at least change "shall" to "may", if one cannot persuade the organization to drop this clause that perpetuates misunderstanding about a tie vote.


A related misconception is that the presiding officer may not vote, ever. If the chair is a member s/he may vote, however, all the above authorities stress that it is unwise to vote unless by secret ballot. Bylaws may allow the chair to have two votes (Demeter p.45). If they do not, then the chair has only one vote, provided s/he is a member of the organization. 


 Sturgis 4th Ed. p. 136-7, Riddick p. 204, Demeter p. 45 provides a definition of  "tie"; Demeter explains that the chair can vote to "create" a tie when the majority consists of one vote e.g. 11 against, 12 in favour; Kerr & King are quite explicit that the chair votes only to break a tied vote, they do not state that a tie vote defeats a motion unless the chair breaks votes to carry the motion by one vote. In view of the confusion that arises, it would be better to provide more direction.


A good question to ask is "What do you understand a tie to mean?" if the reply is no decision, then say "Oh, how unusual, just like the British House of Commons, I wonder if it is the same in Ottawa, Queen's Park (Toronto Municipal Council) etc."


3. Tabling (add to the Agenda)

This comes from the Parliamentary procedure of Tabling new bills. Since there is a motion to Table, the best strategy is to ask the first time, "What do you mean?” There is a specific motion to Table a question, but I understand you want to know if anyone wants to add something to the agenda before we adopt it.  What motion do you use when someone wants to postpone a question? How do you handle what Robert calls "taking an item from the table"?


Related misconceptions are confusing the motions to Table with Postpone indefinitely R10 p 202 or Postpone to a certain time R10 p 202. Sturgis pp 68-71 and King & Kerr pp 193-194 ("... one of the most misused pieces of parliamentary machinery.") assumes To Table means to postpone temporarily.  Demeter recognizes the confusion with postpone pp 99-100; Riddick & Butcher describe To Table as a motion to kill, unless the vote to table is reconsidered. 


Ask what the intention is, stating the correct motion to attain the desired result, according to the parliamentary authority in use, if any. 


4. Seconding.

Often time is wasted getting the correct name of the seconder into the minutes. This may contribute to a misconception of the role of the seconder as a supporter of the motion. 

There can be more time wasted when the seconder speaks against the motion, people often protest this.


According to Robert p 35 a seconder indicates that more than one person is interested in debating the question (also Sturgis p. 25 and Kerrr & King p. 102), if debate begins the lack of a seconder becomes immaterial. Demeter p. 25, in his sample minutes "on a motion of M, duly seconded", with a note that an unseconded motions is unrecorded, the body's forbiddance to record it. Riddick p. 115 omits any reference to a seconder in the sample minutes.


Offer to record the minutes in a sub-committee, without recording the name of the seconder might be useful. When there is a dispute over whose name to record, emphasize that it's only to ensure more than one person wants to discuss the issue, from the number of people who spoke, it was obviously of interest to the meeting. Or simply "Why is it important to record the name of the seconder?"


5. Motion to Adopt the previous minutes when no errors or omissions were found.  Chair often asks for the motion, two people oblige, the secretary records the names of proposer and seconder; everyone votes in favour, which wastes time.


This may be because of ignorance about "general consent".   Robert explains p. 51 that general consent covers situations where there is no minority to protect, hence no objection to the correctness of the minutes, the chair can declare them adopted as read, or as circulated. Demeter p 109 concurs with the lack of need to have a vote, Sturgis p. 142 describes adoption by general consent when no objection is raised, while King & Kerr, p. 268, Riddick p. 115 have sample minutes that indicate no makers or seconders a motion to adopt the minutes.


Ask, "Why do we need to have a motion, a seconder, and a vote, when no one has found any need to correct the minutes?” 


Another misconception related to adopting minutes that have been corrected is the expression "amend the minutes".  It would help to say, "How can we amend the minutes? They are a record of what happened, we can't change something that has already happened, all we can do is correct them so they record the decisions of the meeting accurately."


6. Adopting reports

Quite often a motion is made to adopted, accepted or agree to financial and other reports. This is dangerous, because it means that the meeting is prepared to endorse every word (and amount) in the report.  No other report should be adopted (accepted or agreed) in toto, for the same reason. Recommendations in a report may be treated as main motions, amended, discussed and voted upon; not the entire body of text.


To avoid ill-advised adoption, a motion may be made to "Receive" a report, which is meaningless according to Robert, because it has already been received (Robert p. 490-491).  The chair may state that the report will be filed (Sturgis, p 119).  A motion to thank the author/s is sufficient if an extraordinary amount of work was involved.


Interestingly, Kerr & King while not recommending that reports be adopted in toto, allow a motion to "receive" a report, followed by motions to adopt the recommendations (perhaps at a later meeting) p.100-101; Riddick  p 2-3 consider "to receive" a report is to "accept" it i.e. the report is understood to have been presented and its contents notes, no action is taken, the report is filed, while "to agree to" is to "adopt” with the same meaning as Robert, Sturgis and Kerr & King. Demeter p. 278, offers no cautions about the use of "Adopt", other than specifying that the recommendations are to be adopted, and that the content of the report may be amended to correct errors of fact, on page 15, a caution is given about treasurer's reports being presented for information only.


Unless the parliamentary authority is known,  (it is best to ask this) quote from the above references, or if there is none ask  "What does it mean when we (adopt, accept, receive or agree to) the treasurer's report. Supposing there is an error, then we will have to amend the minutes to correct the error. Why can’t we just file it?"


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